by Matt Sheedy
Talk about the unusually cold weather in North America (U.S. and Canadian parts, that is) is all the rage of late in mainstream and social media, what with record cold in the Southern U.S., thousands of cancelled flights, and frequent comparison with temperatures in some northern cities with temperatures on Mars.
The city where I’m currently living, Winnipeg, Manitoba, seems to have been the first to garner the Mars comparison on January 1, 2014, on the CBC, with the following headline, “Winnipeg Deep Freeze as Cold as Uninhabited Planet.” Reports in U.S. media quickly drew-upon this comparison to describe conditions in Midwest cities like Minneapolis and Chicago, while the Northeast saw record-breaking conditions in cites like New York.
All of this Mars talk reminded me of a point made by J.Z. Smith is his essay, “In Comparison Magic Dwells,” (Imagining Religion 1982) where he discusses the role that the “Laws of Association” played in the development of theory in the study of religion. Smith notes British anthropologist J.G. Frazer’s distinction between magic and science, where magic is described as “a confusion of a subjective relationship with an objective one.” (21) For Smith, this confusion is often paralleled in the human sciences, where,
[C]omparison has been chiefly an affair of the recollection of similarity. The chief explanation for the significance of comparison has been contiguity. The procedure is homeopathic. The theory is built on contagion. The issue of difference has been all but forgotten. (21)
The analogy between recent earthly temperatures with those on the 4th rock from the sun offers an interesting example of comparison by contiguity—of confusing a subjective relationship with an objective one—as seen with the following statement on one ABC News blog:
It’s colder than the surface of Mars!
“The chill is running so deep in (Minnesota) that it’s not only colder than in the lands above the Arctic Circle, it’s actually colder than some of the daily temperatures on Mars — you know, the planet 78 million miles further from the Sun on average,” the Smithsonian wrote in a blog.
A British news site, Metro, makes a similar observation:
Nasa’s Mars Curiosity rover enjoyed warmer temperatures than some US residents on Monday as temperatures plummeted to a -38.3C low.
While the comparison with Mars is understood, on some level, as a metaphor used to describe just how bloody cold it is, there is also a sense in which it registers at face value—as an objective statement of fact. What interests me here is the gap between the use of a provocative analogy and an attempt at explanation, where the former grabs our attention but often leaves the latter—the issue of difference that Smith describes above—minimized or unaccounted for.
As an analogy the comparison with Mars is clearly attention grabbing, though we may also note that such temperatures are nothing new to states like Minnesota and North Dakota or Canadian provinces such as Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. (rarely does the media ever mention the northern territories, unless tragedy or resource development is involved) It has always been “as cold as Mars” for some of us and we are only now making the comparison popular, especially since well-known, powerful cities like Chicago are in the mix.
On another level, however, the comparison with Mars is an objectively poor one and is perhaps more akin to the subjective experience that Smith points to in his discussion of Frazer’s definition of magic.
In a more recent essay, “A Matter of Class,” (Relating Religion 2004) Smith affirms the importance of analogy for producing the element of surprise, which is the lifeblood of all creative endeavors that lead to further explanation:
Classification, by bringing disparate phenomena together in the space of a scholar’s intellect, often produces surprise, the condition which calls forth efforts of explanation. (175)
In calling forth explanation, however, it is the particular set of comparisons being put to use that is of the “essence,” so to speak. Smith illustrates this problem with the term “fundamentalism.” Pointing out its coinage in the 1920s to describe a particular type of Protestant Christianity and its relation to biblical criticism, he observes that “fundamentalism,” as a generic category, obscures the particularities of, for example, Islamic versus Christian variations–a distinction that can make all the difference. As he writes in reference to certain “Islamic” varieties:
It would be better to classify these other ‘fundamentalisms’ as instances of ‘nativism’ or ‘revitalization’ movements, thus emphasizing, among other matters, their setting in colonial and postcolonial histories, a setting that is not present in Christian fundamentalism. (175)
Returning to the comparison with Mars, Politifact.com points out that, for one thing, temperatures on the planet fluctuate widely, as they do on earth, and the air is much colder than on its’ surface where the Curiosity rover takes its readings.
Curiosity reports that the air temperature from its location is between minus 193 and minus 76. And again, that’s just at one location on the planet. Samuel Kounaves, a chemistry professor at Tufts University who specializes in planetary sciences, said the average air temperature on Mars is about minus 50.
While the problems with comparing temperatures on earth with those on Mars do not have the same social effects as, say, the generic use of the term “fundamentalism,” which often serves to obscure important differences, such deployments of comparison or analogy are far from innocent and can lead to all sorts of mystifications.
Fox News, for example, was quick to draw on the rhetoric of “global warming” amidst the recent deep freeze in order to disprove the long-standing warnings of scientists, despite the now dated use of this term by the more empirically useful term “climate change.” As with the comparison between earth and Mars, rhetorical strategies and careful distinctions matter! Or, to evoke yet another title from J.Z., “What a Difference a Difference Makes”!
Matt Sheedy is a PhD. candidate in religious studies at the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, and associate editor of the Bulletin for the Study of Religion. His research interests include critical social theory, theories of secularism, ritual and myth, and social movements. His dissertation offers a critical look at Juergen Habermas’s theory of religion in the public sphere. He is also conducting research on myths, rituals and symbols in the Occupy movement and discourses on ‘Nativeness’ in the Aboriginal-led Idle No More movement.