Timothy Morton: Hyperobjects, Climate Change (and Trump)

hyperobjects-timothy-mortonI found Timothy Morton’s book Hyperobjects fairly incomprehensible — I know next to nothing of OOO, or Object Oriented Ontology — but find the concept of the hyperobject compelling and incredibly useful in thinking about the world. I thank Mark, and Karolina and Anya giving us our time in Poland for bringing it to my attention…

Climate change is the hyperobject under discussion

massively distributed in time and space relative to humans (1).

it is bigger than we can comprehend but is also something caused by us. It is out there impacting in multiple different ways across the world and yet it is also the heat wave and the hurricane we experience directly against our skin. It started long ago yet it defines our future and thus squeezes upon our present. As Morton writes,

The very feeling of wondering whether the catastrophe will begin soon is a symptom of its already having begun. (177)

Because of all this, hyperobjects are reflected in our thought art action, conscious and unconscious. Capitalism is another hyperobject, and to me this opens up so many avenues of thought.

I’ve been trying to deal with the desolation and fear I have been flooded with since Trump’s election yesterday — a day in which I could not work, just restlessly do nothing much at all. In trying to understand this terrible thing, I think a lot can be argued for this idea of climate change as a  hyperobject. I think ultimately Trump rode to power on the fear of the immensity and unknowability of climate change and these crisis days of capitalism. This terrifying future that people can feel approaching, the knowledge that everything is shrinking and everything is changing and resources do not exist to sustain America’s current way of life — or ever bring back the days when a high school diploma and a manufacturing job could get you a house and a decent life. The fear this inspires, even when not acknowledged or outright denied.

So the scramble for resources has begun I think, they will be saved for the few, the ‘deserving’, and Trump has made clear who those few are — based on the historic divisions emerging from Native American genocide, slavery, class warfare, and of course our current wars that are all about oil resources. So white folks earning over $50,000 a year voted Trump in through the electoral college once again — he lost the popular vote. Even among, especially among, the climate change deniers there is a bunkering down without any sense of irony. There will be a gathering of resources behind high walls and ever deeper divisions between ‘us’ on one side and ‘them’ on the other. A growing violence and ruthlessness towards ‘them’ in the name of survival — and god knows it has been terrible enough already. My mother will be one of ‘them’, most of my friends and all of those I stand with in solidarity. People of colour, muslims, the poor, immigrants, LGBTQI folks, the disabled. It is like my dad’s old pistol-packing coworker who he helped move a truckload of canned peaches into her bunker for the end of days. A kind of insanity that is based on the philosophy of getting mine, and fuck everyone else.

I sit here, sick with worry. Even more helpless given my distance. So Morton’s abstractions and rhetoric seem a little too abstract — as they did before the election to be honest. But I shall give you a large taste — the opacity of the language may or may not hide something deeper that I am missing. I’m honestly not sure. I think this is a valuable concept to examine today’s world but this is quite a pick’n mix approach to the book that will probably horrify philosophers. I apologise in advance.

Morton’s summation of hyperobjects:

They are viscous, which means that they “stick” to beings that are involved with them. They are nonlocal; in other words, any “local manifestation” of a hyperobject is not directly the hyperobject. They involve profoundly different temporalities than the human-scale ones we are used to. … Hyperobjects occupy a high-dimensional phase space that results in their being invisible to humans for stretches of time.  And they exhibit their effects interobjectively; that is, they can be detected in a space that consists of interrelationships between aesthetic properties of objects. The hyperobject is not a function of our knowledge…  Hyperobjects are real whether or not someone is thinking of them. (1-2)

They are so big they impact everything, and we don’t have to be aware of it to be true. Which is what I find fascinating about this idea:

No longer are my intimate impressions “personal” in the sense that they are “merely mine” or “subjective only”: they are footprints of hyperobjects… (5)

The world has already ended, Morton argues. The first time in April 1784 when James Watt patented the steam engine. The second in Trinity, NM in 1945, the first atom bomb test. I feel like it has ended a third time in a way. But I mostly hate this rhetoric because while Morton argues this liberates us, I think it does the opposite.

I do however, like to recognise how small we are made by what we face:

For what comes into view for humans at this moment is precisely the end of the world, brought about by the encroachment of hyperobjects, one of which is assuredly Earth itself, and its geological cycles demand a geophilosophy that doesn’t think simply in terms of human events and human significance. (7)

An aside on OOO to place it within philosophy’s canon — this is part of

speculative realism is the umbrella terms for a movement that comprises such scholars as Graham Harman, Jane Bennett, Quentin Meillasoux, Patrica Clough, Iain Hamilton Grant, Levi Bryant, Ian Bogost, Steven Shaviro, Reza Negarestani, Ray Brassier and an emerging host fo others… to break the spell that descended on philosophy since the Romantic period. The spell known as correlationism, the notion that philosophy can only talk within a narrow bandwidth, restricted to the human-world correlate: meaning is only possible between a human mind and what it thinks, its “objects” … The problem as correlationism sees it is, is the light on in the fridge when you close the door? (9)

 

Part 1 What Are Hyperobjects?

The awful shadow of some unseen power
— Percy Shelley

This book draws on two things I enjoy, SF and quantum physics — all the things I struggled to come to terms with in Green and Hawking’s work (and failed, significantly in grasping really). Things like tiny forks vibrating and not vibrating simultaneously — visible to the human eye. I wish my own eye could see such a thing.

Nonlocality

Hyperobjects are touching us, making our hair fall out, our skin blister, yet they are nonlocal — we are not the centre of the universe nor are we privileged actors. He writes:

Locality is an abstraction…Heavy rain is simply a local manifestation of some vast entity that I’m unable directly to see. (47-48)

In grasping at the local, the individual, we destroy the sense of the larger whole:

Stop the tape of evolution anywhere and you won’t see it. Stand under a rain cloud and it’s not global warming you’ll feel. Cut your throat into a thousand pieces — you won’t find capital in there. Now try pointing to the unconscious. Did you catch it? Hyperobjects compel us to think ecologically, and not the other way round. … Nowhere in the long list of catastrophic weather events…will you find global warming. But global warming is as real as this sentence. (48)

It touches all of us.

In a sense, we can expect human egos to be pockmarked with the traces of hyperobjects. We are all burnt by ultraviolet rays… We are poems about the hyperobject Earth. (51)

Yet this does not negate the specificity of things themselves.

When I think nonlocality in this way, I am not negating the specificity of things, evaporating them into the abstract mist of the general, the larger or the less local. Nonlocality is far weirder than that. When it comes to hyperobjects, nonloocality means that the general itself is compromised by the particular. When I look for the hyperobject oil, I don’t find it. Oil just is droplets, flows, rivers, and slicks of oil. I do not find the object by looking sub specie aeternitatis, but by seeing things sub specie majoris, sub specie inhumanae. (54)

He looks at Negarestani’s Cyclonpedia, suffused with oil — I struggled my way through this book when I first came to London. It is rather weird and wonderful.

Because we can’t see to the end of them, hyperobjects are necessarily uncanny. (55)

It is interesting to think that a bounded object we cannot see the limits of should seem greater than infinity, but I think he’s right:

There is a real sense in which it is far easier to conceive of “forever” than very large finitude. Forever makes you feel important. One hundred thousand years makes you wonder whether you can imagine one hundred thousand anything. (60)

Two asides (for me) on Einstein’s physics and things I don’t understand but rather enjoy grappling with:

…the pencil you are holding in your fingers is only a rigid extended body on account of a false immediacy. Nothing in the universe apprehends the pencil like that, really. Not even the pencil apprehends itself like that. (62)

Spacetime turns from a grid-like box into what Einstein fantastically calls a “reference-mollusk.” Reference-mollusks exist precisely because of hyperobjects that emanate gravitational fields. In these fields geometry is not Euclidean.  (63)

There is quite a lot about space in here, theorised in opposition to Newton rather than sociology, which is more familiar to me. So Morton writes

To understand hyperobjects, however, is to think the abyss in front of things. (63)

and then this, which I thought Lefebvre and other had ended decades ago, but I suppose not in physics:

Hyperobjects end the idea that time and space are empty containers that entities sit in. (65)

Phasing

Hyperobjects are phased: they occupy a high-dimensional phase space that makes them impossible to see as a whole on a regular three-dimensional human-scale basis.

We can only see pieces of hyperobjects at a time. (70)

I struggle with how this is different from non-locality

As it is, I only see brief patches of this gigantic object as it intersects with my world. The brief patch I call a hurricane destroys the infrastructure of New Orleans… (71)

Also with how this is not quite another argument for networks, for connection the way permaculturists would see things, or Capra — but Morton is fairly dismissive of emergence.

Hyperobjects don’t inhabit some conceptual beyond in our heads or out there. They are real objects that affect other objects. Indeed the philosophical view behind thinking that objects are one thing and relations (which is what we’re really talking about when we talk about math or transcendence) are another positively inhibits our transition to an ecological age, even as it poses sophisticated theories of emergence or process. (73)

I need to think more about objects and relations maybe. This too I find rather difficult to get my head around:

The abyss does not underlie things, but rather allows things to coexist: it is the nonspatial “betweeness” of things. Whenever I put my hand into the toaster oven I am thrusting part of my body into an abyss. (79)

Interobjectivity

The abyss in front of things is interobjective. It floats among objects, “between” them… On this view, what is called intersubjectivity— a shared space in which human meaning resonates–is a small region of a much larger interobjective configuration space. Hyperobjects disclose interobjectivity. The phenomenon we call intersubjectivity is just a local, anthropocentric instance of a much more widespread phenomenon… (81)

Stop privileging the human, the anthropocentric. There are many indigenous systems that do this, to all my relations is this same idea, no? Easier to understand, easier to incorporate into a better way of life. But I continue the struggle with these words, where everything is connected interobjectively through what he calls the mesh, and goes on to write things I am not entirely sure I find useful or not:

Hyperobjects simply enable us to see what is generally the case:

  1. Protagoras notwithstanding, objects are not made-to-measure for humans.

  2. Objects do not occur “in” time and space, but rather emit spacetime.

  3. Causality does not churn underneath objects like a machine in the basement, but rather floats in front of them.

  4. The causal dimension, in which things like explosions are taken to happen, is also the aesthetic dimension, in which things like Nude Descending a Staircase are taken to happen. (89-90)

There is some interesting stuff about cities I shall collect together at the end, but a final thought:

The present does not truly exist. We experience a crisscrossing set of force fields, the aesthetic-causal fields emanated by a host of objects. (93)

PART II: The Time of Hyperobjects

A hyperobject has ruined the weather conversations, which functions as part of a neutral screen that enables us to have human drama in the foreground. In an age of global warming, there is no background, and thus there is no foreground. It is the end of the world, since worlds depend on background and foregrounds. (99)

Ah, the end of the world! I still can’t quite grasp this, but unlike some of the other concepts to be found here, I rather want to. This too:

Lifeworld was just a story we were telling ourselves on the inside of a vast, massively distributed hyperobject called climate… (103)

On sustainability — a major development engine and fundraising mechanism these days, making perfect sense of this:

The common name for managing and regulating flows is sustainability. But what exactly is being sustained? “Sustained capitalism” might be one of those contradictions in terms along the lines of “military intelligence.” (111)

I like, too, the insight that given the way capital operates and how it is based on raw materials –

Nature is the featureless remainder at either end of the process of production. (112)

This is one of the lies our world is built on that is crumbling at the approach of climate change as hyperobject.

I rather like this sentence, what does it mean? I don’t know.

Marx was partly wrong, then, when in The Communist Manifesto he claimed that in capitalism all that is solid melts into air. He didn’t’ see how a hypersolidity oozes back into the emptied-out space of capitalism. (115)

So to come to the end, to look at the city metaphor he uses for the hyperobject — I am actually fascinated that we should have built something so legible, so mappable, that yet could serve as a hyperobject. That is rather fascinating. Morton writes:

The streets beneath the streets, the Roman Wall, the boarded-up houses, the unexploded bombs, are records of everything that happened to London. London’s history is its form. Form is memory. …

Appearance is the past. Essence is the future. The strange strangeness of a hyperobject, its invisibility–it’s the future, somehow beamed into the “present.”(91)

Later in the book he returns to this:

A hyperobject is like a city — indeed a city like London could provide a good example of a hyperobject. Cities and hyperobjects are full of strange streets, abandoned entrances, cul-de-sacs, and hidden interstitial regions. (120)

I’m playing with that idea more. But a final glimpse at Morton’s own descriptions of hyperobjects

What best explains ecological awareness is a sense of intimacy, not a sense of belonging to something bigger: a sense of being close, even too close, to other lifeforms, of having them under one’s skin. Hyperobjects force us into an intimacy with out own death (because they are toxic), with others (because everyone is affected by them), and with the future (because they are massively distributed in time.) (139)

[Morton, Timothy (2013) Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press.]

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