Problem of the Many
How do you draw a line around a cloud? It’s a harder question than it seems. If a haze of water droplets surrounds every cloud, and we can’t pinpoint where in this haze the cloud’s edge falls, then there is not one cloud, but many possible clouds of minutely different sizes—an infinity of clouds, or maybe none at all.
This philosophical problem is the subject of Peter Unger’s 1980 essay, “The Problem of the Many.” It’s also a central theme of Timothy Donnelly’s poetry collection of the same name—though for Donnelly, the borderlessness of the cloud is a figure for a more general kind of fluidity, and embracing a world without clear definitions is a way to resist capitalism. In drawing distinctions, says the speaker of the title poem, one is “making a claim / about what is, and is not, reality, which droplets belong to the cloud / legitimately, which are left out.” Only by resisting this impulse to impose order on reality can we build a world in which all are included.