Ambient Thinking: Or, Sweating over Theory




heat, epistemology, embodiment, philosophy, writing

How to Cite

Bartlett, A. (2010). Ambient Thinking: Or, Sweating over Theory. M/C Journal, 13(2).
Vol. 13 No. 2 (2010): ambient
Published 2010-03-09

If Continental social theory emerges from a climate of intensely cold winters and short mild summers, how does Australia (or any nation defined by its large masses of aridity) function as an environment in which to produce critical theory and new knowledge? Climate and weather are intrinsic to ambience, but what impact might they have on the conditions of producing academic work? How is ambience relevant to thinking and writing and research? Is there an ambient epistemology?

This paper argues that the ambient is an unacknowledged factor in the production of critical thinking, and draws on examples of academics locating their writing conditions as part of their thinking. This means paying attention to the embodied work of thinking, and so I locate myself in order to explore what it might mean to acknowledge the conditions of intellectual work. Consequently I dwell on the impact of heat and light as qualities specific to where I work, but (following Bolt) I also argue that they are terms that are historically associated with new knowledge. Language, then, is already a factor in shaping the way we can think through such conditions, and the narratives available to write about them. Working these conditions into critical narratives may involve mobilising fictional tropes, and may not always be ambient, but they are potent in the academic imaginary and impact the ways in which we can think through location.

Present Tense

As I sit in Perth right now in a balmy 27 degrees Celsius with the local afternoon sea-breeze (fondly known as the Fremantle Doctor) clearing the stuffiness and humidity of the day, environmental conditions are near perfect for the end of summer. I barely notice them. Not long ago though, it was over 40 degrees for three days in a row. These were the three days I had set aside to complete an academic paper, the last days available before the university opened and normal work would resume. I’d arranged to have the place to myself, but I hadn’t arranged for cooling technologies. As I immersed myself in photocopies and textbooks the intellectual challenges and excitement were my preoccupation. It was hot, but I was almost unreceptive to recognising the discomforts of the weather until sweat began to drip onto pages and keyboards.

A break in the afternoon for a swim at the local beach was an opportunity to clarify and see the bigger picture, and as the temperature began to slide into the evening cool it was easier to stay up late working and then sleep in late. I began to work around the weather. What impact does this have on thinking and writing? I remember it as a haze. The paper though, still seems clear and reasoned. My regimen might be read as working despite the weather, but I wonder if the intensity of the heat extends thinking in different directions—to go places where I wouldn’t have imagined in an ambiently cooled office (if I had one).

The conditions of the production of knowledge are often assumed to be static, stable and uninteresting. Even if your work is located in exciting Other places, the ‘writing up’ is expected to happen ‘back home’, after the extra-ordinary places of fieldwork. It can be written in the present tense, for a more immediate reading experience, but the writing cannot always happen at the same time as the events being described, so readers accept the use of present tense as a figment of grammar that cannot accommodate the act of writing.

When a writer becomes aware of their surroundings and articulates those conditions into their narrative, the reader is lifted out of the narrative into a metaframe; out of the body of writing and into the extra-diegetic. In her essay “Me and My Shadow” (1987), Jane Tompkins writes as if ‘we’ the reader are in the present with her as she makes connections between books, experiences, memories, feelings, and she also provides us with a writing scene in which to imagine her in the continuous present:

It is a beautiful day here in North Carolina. The first day that is both cool and sunny all summer. After a terrible summer, first drought, then heat-wave, then torrential rain, trees down, flooding. Now, finally, beautiful weather. A tree outside my window just brushed by red, with one fully red leaf. (This is what I want you to see. A person sitting in stockinged feet looking out of her window – a floor to ceiling rectangle filled with green, with one red leaf. The season poised, sunny and chill, ready to rush down the incline into autumn. But perfect, and still. Not going yet.) (128)

This is a strategy, part of the aesthetics and politics of Tompkins’s paper which argues for the way the personal functions in intellectual thinking and writing even when we don’t recognise or acknowledge it. A little earlier she characterises herself as vulnerable because of the personal/professional nexus:

I don’t know how to enter the debate [over epistemology] without leaving everything else behind – the birds outside my window, my grief over Janice, just myself as a person sitting here in stockinged feet, a little bit chilly because the windows are open, and thinking about going to the bathroom. But not going yet. (126)

The deferral of autumn and going to the bathroom is linked through the final phrase, “not going yet”. This is a kind of refrain that draws attention to the aesthetic architecture of locating the self, and yet the reference to an impending toilet trip raised many eyebrows. Nancy Millar comments that “these passages invoke that moment in writing when everything comes together in a fraction of poise; that fragile moment the writing in turn attempts to capture; and that going to the bathroom precisely, will end” (6). It spoils the moment. The aesthetic green scene with one red leaf is ruptured by the impending toilet scene. Or perhaps it is the intimacy of bodily function that disrupts the ambient. And yet the moment is fictional anyway.

There must surely always be some fiction involved when writing about the scene of writing, as writing usually takes more than one take. Gina Mercer takes advantage of this fictional function in a review of a collection of women’s poetry. Noting the striking discursive differences between the editor’s introduction and the poetry collected in the volume, she suggestively accounts for this by imagining the conditions under which the editor might have been working:

I suddenly begin to imagine that she wrote the introduction sitting at her desk in twin-set and pearls, her feet constricted by court shoes – but that the selection took place at home with her lying on a large beautifully-linened bed bestrewn by a cat and the poems… (4)

These imaginary conditions, Mercer implies, impact on the ways we do our intellectual work, or perhaps different kinds of work require different conditions. Mercer not only imagines the editor at work, but also suggests her own preferred workspace when she mentions that “the other issue I’ve been pondering as I lay on my bed in a sarong (yes it’s hot here already) reading this anthology, has been the question of who reads love poetry these days?” (4). Placing herself as reader (of an anthology of love poetry) on the bed in a sarong in a hot climate partially accounts for the production of the thinking around this review, but probably doesn’t include the writing process. Mercer’s review is written in epistolary form, signaling an engagement with ‘the personal’, and yet that awareness of form and setting performs a doubling function in which scenes are set and imagination is engaged and yet their veracity doesn’t seem important, and may even be part of the fiction of form. It’s the idea of working leisurely that gains traction in this review. Despite the capacity for fiction, I want to believe that Jane Tompkins was writing in her study in North Carolina next to a full-length window looking out onto a tree. I’m willing to suspend my disbelief and imagine her writing in this place and time.

Scenes of Writing

Physical conditions are often part of mythologising a writer. Sylvia Plath wrote the extraordinary collection of poems that became Ariel during the 1962/63 London winter, reputed to have been the coldest for over a hundred years (Gifford 15). The cold weather is given a significant narrative role in the intensity of her writing and her emotional desperation during that period. Sigmund Freud’s writing desk was populated with figurines from his collection of antiquities looking down on his writing, a scene carefully replicated in the Freud Museum in London and reproduced in postcards as a potent staging of association between mythology, writing and psychoanalysis (see Burke 2006). Writer’s retreats at the former residences of writers (like Varuna at the former home of Eleanor Dark in the Blue Mountains, and the Katherine Susannah Pritchard Centre in the hills outside of Perth) memorialise the material conditions in which writers wrote. So too do pilgrimages to the homes of famous writers and the tourism they produce in which we may gaze in wonder at the ordinary places of such extraordinary writing. The ambience of location is one facet of the conditions of writing.

When I was a doctoral student reading Continental feminist philosophy, I used anything at hand to transport myself into their world. I wrote my dissertation mostly in Townsville in tropical Queensland (and partly in Cairns, even more tropical), where winter is blue skies and mid-twenties in temperature but summers are subject to frequent build-ups in pressure systems, high humidity, no breeze and some cyclones. There was no doubt that studying habits were affected by the weather for a student, if not for all the academics who live there. Workplaces were icily air-conditioned (is this ambient?) but outside was redolent with steamy tropical evenings, hot humid days, torrential downpours. When the weather breaks there is release in blood pressure accompanying barometer pressure. I was reading contemporary Australian literature alongside French feminist theories of subjectivity and their relation through écriture féminine. The European philosophical and psychoanalytic tradition and its exquisitely radical anti-logical writing of Irigaray, Cixous and Kristeva seemed alien to my tropical environs but perversely seductive.

In order to get ‘inside’ the theoretical arguments, my strategy was to interpolate myself into their imagined world of writing, to emulate their imagined conditions. Whenever my friend went on a trip, I caretook her 1940s unit that sat on a bluff and looked out over the Coral Sea, all whitewashed and thick stone, and transformed it into a French salon for my intellectual productivity. I played Edith Piaf and Grace Jones, went to the grocer at the bottom of the hill every day for fresh food and the French patisserie for baguettes and croissants. I’d have coffee brewing frequently, and ate copious amounts of camembert and chocolate. The Townsville flat was a Parisian salon with French philosophers conversing in my head and between the piles of book lying on the table. These binges of writing were extraordinarily productive. It may have been because of the imagined Francophile habitus (as Bourdieu understands it); or it may have been because I prepared for the anticipated period of time writing in a privileged space. There was something about adopting the fictional romance of Parisian culture though that appealed to the juxtaposition of doing French theory in Townsville. It intensified the difference but interpolated me into an intellectual imaginary.

Derrida’s essay, “Freud and the Scene of Writing”, promises to shed light on Freud’s conditions of writing, and yet it is concerned moreover with the metaphoric or rather intellectual ‘scene’ of Freudian ideas that form the groundwork of Derrida’s own corpus. Scenic, or staged, like Tompkins’s framed window of leaves, it looks upon the past as a ‘moment’ of intellectual ferment in language. Peggy Kamuf suggests that the translation of this piece of Derrida’s writing works to cover over the corporeal banishment from the scene of writing, in a move that privileges the written trace. In commenting, Kamuf translates Derrida herself:

‘to put outside and below [metre dehors et en bas] the body of the written trace [le corps de la trace écrite].’ Notice also the latter phrase, which says not the trace of the body but the body of the trace. The trace, what Derrida but before him also Freud has called trace or Spur, is or has a body. (23)

This body, however, is excised, removed from the philosophical and psychoanalytic imaginary Kamuf argues. Australian philosopher Elizabeth Grosz contends that the body is “understood in terms that attempt to minimize or ignore altogether its formative role in the production of philosophical values – truth, knowledge, justice” (Volatile 4):

Philosophy has always considered itself a discipline concerned primarily or exclusively with ideas, concepts, reason, judgment – that is, with terms clearly framed by the concept of mind, terms which marginalize or exclude considerations of the body. As soon as knowledge is seen as purely conceptual, its relation to bodies, the corporeality of both knowers and texts, and the ways these materialities interact, must become obscure. (Volatile 4)

In the production of knowledge then, the corporeal knowing writing body can be expected to interact with place, with the ambience or otherwise in which we work. “Writing is a physical effort,” notes Cixous, and “this is not said often enough” (40). 

The Tense Present

Conditions have changed here in Perth since the last draft. A late summer high pressure system is sitting in the Great Australian Bite pushing hot air across the desert and an equally insistent ridge of low pressure sits off the Indian Ocean, so the two systems are working against each other, keeping the weather hot, still, tense, taut against the competing forces. It has been nudging forty degrees for a week. The air conditioning at work has overloaded and has been set to priority cooling; offices are the lowest priority. A fan blasts its way across to me, thrumming as it waves its head from one side to the other as if tut-tutting. I’m not consumed with intellectual curiosity the way I was in the previous heatwave; I’m feeling tired, and wondering if I should just give up on this paper. It will wait for another time and journal.

There’s a tension with chronology here, with what’s happening in the present, but then Rachel Blau DuPlessis argues that the act of placing ideas into language inevitably produces that tension:

Chronology is time depicted as travelling (more or less) in a (more or less) forward direction. Yet one can hardly write a single sentence straight; it all rebounds. Even its most innocent first words – A, The, I, She, It – teem with heteroglossias. (16)

“Sentences structure” DuPlessis points out, and grammar necessitates development, chronological linearity, which affects the possibilities for narrative. “Cause and effect affect” DuPlessis notes (16), as do Cixous and Irigaray before her. Nevertheless we must press on. And so I leave work and go for a swim, bring my core body temperature down, and order a pot of tea from the beach café while I read Barbara Bolt in the bright afternoon light.

Bolt is a landscape painter who has spent some time in Kalgoorlie, a mining town 800km east of Perth, and notes the ways light is used as a metaphor for visual illumination, for enlightening, and yet in Kalgoorlie light is a glare which, far from illuminating, blinds. In Kalgoorlie the light is dangerous to the body, causing cancers and cataracts but also making it difficult to see because of its sheer intensity. Bolt makes an argument for the Australian light rupturing European thinking about light:

Visual practice may be inconceivable without a consideration of light, but, I will argue, it is equally ‘inconceivable’ to practice under European notions of light in the ‘glare’ of the Australian sun. Too much light on matter sheds no light on the matter. (204)

Bolt frequently equates the European notions of visual art practice that, she claims, Australians still operate under, with concomitant concepts of European philosophy, aesthetics and, I want to add, epistemology. She is particularly adept at noting the material impact of Australian conditions on the body, arguing that,

the ‘glare’ takes apart the Enlightenment triangulation of light, knowledge, and form. In fact, light becomes implicated bodily, in the facts of the matter. My pterygiums and sun-beaten skin, my mother and father’s melanomas, and the incidence of glaucoma implicate the sun in a very different set of processes. From my optic, light can no longer be postulated as the catalyst that joins objects while itself remaining unbent and unimplicated … (206).

If new understandings of light are generated in Australian conditions of working, surely heat is capable of refiguring dominant European notions as well. Heat is commonly associated with emotions and erotics, even through ideas: heated debate, hot topics and burning issues imply the very latest and most provocative discussions, sizzling and mercurial. Heat has a material affect on corporeality also: dehydrating, disorienting, dizzying and burning. Fuzzy logic and bent horizons may emerge. Studies show that students learn best in ambient temperatures (Pilman; Graetz), but I want to argue that thought and writing can bend in other dimensions with heat. Tensions build in blood pressure alongside isometric bars. Emotional and intellectual intensities merge. Embodiment meets epistemology.

This is not a new idea; feminist philosophers like Donna Haraway have been emphasizing the importance of situated knowledge and partial perspective for decades as a methodology that challenges universalism and creates a more ethical form of objectivity. In 1987 Haraway was

arguing for politics and epistemologies of location, positioning, and situating, where partiality and not universality is the condition of being heard to make rational knowledge claims.  These are claims on people’s lives. I am arguing for the view from a body, always a complex contradictory structuring and structured body versus the view from above, from nowhere, from simplicity. (Haraway 588)

Working in intellectual conditions when the specificities of ambience is ignored, is also, I suggest, to work in a privileged space, in which there are no distractions like the weather. It is also to work ‘from nowhere, from simplicity’ in Haraway’s words. It is to write from within the pure imaginary space of the intellect. But to write in, and from, weather conditions no matter what they might be is to acknowledge the affect of being-in-the-world, to recognise an ontological debt that is embodied and through which we think.  I want to make a claim for the radical conditions under which writing can occur outside of the ambient, as I sit here sweating over theory again. Drawing attention to the corporeal conditions of the scene of writing is a way of situating knowledge and partial perspective: if I were in Hobart where snow still lies on Mount Wellington I may well have a different perspective, but the metaphors of ice and cold also need transforming into productive and generative conditions of particularised knowledge.

To acknowledge the location of knowledge production suggests more of the forces at work in particular thinking, as a bibliography indicates the shelf of books that have inflected the written product. This becomes a relation of immanence rather than transcendence between the subject and thought, whereby thinking can be understood as an act, an activity, or even activism of an agent. This is proposed by Elizabeth Grosz in her later work where she yokes together the “jagged edges” (Time 165) of Deleuze and Irigaray’s work in order to reconsider the “future of thought”. She calls for a revision of meaning, as Bolt does, but this time in regard to thought itself—and the task of philosophy—asking whether it is

possible to develop an understanding of thought that refuses to see thought as passivity, reflection, contemplation, or representation, and instead stresses its activity, how and what it performs […] can we deromanticize the construction of knowledges and discourses to see them as labor, production, doing? (Time 158)

If writing is to be understood as a form of activism it seems fitting to conclude here with one final image: of Gloria Anzaldua’s computer, at which she invites us to imagine her writing her book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (1987), a radical Chicana vision for postcolonial theory. Like Grosz, Anzaldua is intent on undoing the mind/body split and the language through which the labour of thinking can be articulated. This is where she writes her manifesto:

I sit here before my computer, Amiguita, my altar on top of the monitor with the Virgen de Coatalopeuh candle and copal incense burning. My companion, a wooden serpent staff with feathers, is to my right while I ponder the ways metaphor and symbol concretize the spirit and etherealize the body. (75)



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Mercer, Gina. “The Days of Love Are Lettered.” Review of The Oxford Book of Australian Love Poems, ed. Jennifer Strauss. LiNQ 22.1 (1995): 135-40.

Miller, Nancy K. Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts. New York: Routledge, 1991.

Pilman, Mary S. “The Effects of Air Temperature Variance on Memory Ability.” Loyola University Clearinghouse, 2001. ‹›.

Tompkins, Jane. “Me and My Shadow.” New Literary History 19.1 (1987): 169-78.

Author Biography

Alison Bartlett, University of Western Australia

Alison Bartlett is Professor of Women's Studies at the University of Western Australia. Her research has been in corporeal feminist theory, maternity, and feminist memory. She is the author of Jamming the Machinery: contemporary Australian women's writing (1998) and Breastwork: Rethinking Breastfeeding (2005), and has edited Australian Literature and the Public Sphere (1999), Transforming R/Elations: Postgraduate Research Supervision (2001), and Giving Breastmilk (2010).