What Debt is “Due to Today’s Wet Weather’”?

On rainy days in British stations, commuters can be seen to frown slightly as the inevitable pre-recorded edict sounds out:

DUE TO TODAY’S WET WEATHER, PLEASE TAKE CARE WHILE ON THE PLATFORM: SURFACES MAY BE SLIPPERY    

Performed in an office cafeteria or during an after-work drink, parodies of its uncanny android intonation will be met with immediate recognition, and the original declared so annoying. But why should it be so? If pushed, most of us would give one of two reasons, neither obviously satisfactory. The first comes from the kind of conservative for whom “health and safety” legislation is merely one arm of a general cultural malaise imposed on Britain by a secret conspiracy of socialist city councils. But reminding people to keep their wits about them while crowding onto wet platforms next to electrified train tracks needn’t be an unreasonable idea in itself.

The second objection comes from the perspective of linguistic pedantry. As a sentence opening, “due to today’s wet weather” is a disaster of syntax that no real person would use. Had the announcement been written in any other idiom than the cack-handed bureaucratese that is reserved for such productions, it might have begun “in light of today’s wet weather”, “given today’s wet weather”, more formally, “in respect of today’s wet weather”, or even just “because the weather has been wet”: although admittedly the figurative language in the first of these suggestions suffers from the undesirable intimation of sunlight.

Such pedantry is usually the preserve of the kind of bores who fret about the apostrophe use of greengrocers, generally in the service of replacing actually thinking with merely being right. But perhaps a certain kind of radical pedantry can help us here. Why “due to today’s wet weather”? With various serviceable alternatives available, why should there be this clumsy forcing into the sentence of the concept of “debt”? What exactly is this debt supposedly “due” to the weather? If we do “take care while on the platform”, surely it is out of a sense of responsibility to ourselves: not because we owe the weather anything.

In The Gift (1925), the anthropologist Marcel Mauss argues that the concept of debt is surprisingly widespread in culture, and further, that its deployment as a kind of violence is in evidence from the most supposedly primitive cultures upwards. His case studies of the indigenous people of the Pacific North West, for instance, describe social groups imposing one enormous sacrificial gift – or “potlatch” – after another on their neighbours, in the hope of defeating them by way of the terrible debt this produces in the obligation to reciprocate. Mauss’s work has inspired philosophers from Georges Bataille to Jacques Derrida to try to imagine a concept of gifting that does not produce this violence of the debt: a kind of absolutely excessive gift that would escape the conventional economic assumption that everything must be exchangeable. Certainly this project has a special resonance at times of economic crisis, when the destructiveness latent in notions of “credit” and “debt” are peculiarly visible.

A similar resistance then may be the true germ of our irritation with the station announcement. The philosophical tradition after Mauss has proposed that a certain radicalized reimagining of “the gift” could be a desirable way of countering the capitalist demand to conceive of all relations – social to meteorological – as economic. Insofar as they resent a choice of language that implies it is possible to have incurred a debt merely by turning up for work in the rain, this radical project should find potential sympathizers in Britain’s commuters.

 

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