Friday, July 4, 2014

“Hyperobject” as Concept and as Rhetorical Device


When I first started reading Tim Morton’s posts on hyperobjects, I found the concept rather puzzling. For that matter, I found his usage of “object” puzzling as well.

My basic sense of “object”, after all, is grounded in the human-scale objects of the mundane world: that lamp to my left, the mini-fridge behind me, my Calicchio trumpet, those jeans draped over the bedstead, and so forth. And now Morton wants me to think of global warming as an object? A hyperobject? Strange.

The thing is, mundane objects are given in ordinary perception, but global warming, no way. You can date its beginning however you will – it’s not something with a sharp moment of origin – but, wherever you settle it, it’s been around long before we were able to conceptualize and thus perceive it. That conceptualization required a great deal of sophisticated observation, analysis, modeling, and computer simulation undertaken by a large and scattered community of scientists.

And now, in effect, and for purposes both practical and metaphysical, what Morton wants us to do is to pack all of that up into a unit that we can treat pretty much like a mundane object, a stone, a leaf, or a beach ball. Ontologically it’s the same kind of thing. They’re all objects.

That takes getting used to. A hyperobject is really just an object, no more, no less. But a strange object. What the “hyper” prefix does, in effect, as serve as a marker, a reminder, for all that packing-up.

I spent awhile trying to get a sense of just what the definitional criteria were. In a review of Hyperobjects Tom White sums them up: “viscosity, non-locality, temporal undulation, phasing, and interobjectivity.” Just what that means is not exactly clear. But that’s OK.


For now we’re into “hyperobjects” as a rhetorical device, one that allows Morton to do things. The concept's rhetorical uses, you see, exceed its meaning, and deliberately so. The thing is, while Morton’s all about strangeness and weirdness, once you allow him this fetish, his impressionism and contrariness, you can read it all as coherent. He’s turning chaos into cosmos, just not the cosmos we’re used to, because that order of things isn’t working out.

What does “hyperobjects” allow Morton to do? This, according to White (emphasis mine):
Modern, or, rather, postmodern humans have a range of well-developed vocabularies for talking about infinity, from the Kantian sublime to various religious and spiritual discourses. What we don’t have, Morton argues, are ways of thinking about very large finitude – the terrifying yet mundane fact that a plastic bag will last for roughly twenty-thousand years, or that radioactive materials buried under Yucca Mountain in Nevada will still be there “21.4 thousand years from now,” when the mountain itself may not. In this view, ecological awareness is a coming to terms with our existence in multiple temporal scales. The “end of the world” of which Morton speaks is not, therefore, the often crude and lurid apocalypticism of certain trends of ecological thinking, but rather the end of a particular way of thinking about the world. Indeed, it is the very concept of “world” that has itself been brought to an end by hyperobjects: due to hyperobjects like global warming the world, like “nature,” can no longer be thought of simply as the background of lived human existence.
Very large finitude – a phrase simple enough, consisting of a noun, modified by an adjective, modified by an adverb, or whatever it is that "very" is. But an important concept and, yes, thinking about it is hard. We better get used to it. And all those temporal (and spatial) scales. All at once all the time, too.

A bit later White tells us:
For Morton, the existence of hyperobjects compels us to think ecologically, not the other way around. That is, we are not suddenly able to think hyperobjects as a result of an expanded ecological consciousness, but rather “plutonium, global warming, pollution, and so on, gave rise to ecological thinking.”
That is, for Morton, global warming is not yet another phenomenon to be conceptualized in the terms that lay about classrooms, studies, laboratories and libraries in, say, 1960. It forces new conceptualizations upon us, and not just conceptualizations of the physical world, “over there.” In forcing us to realize that the physical world is no longer and never was “over there” global warming is forcing us to rethink the human world, the whole world, everything.

And “hyperobjects” is Morton’s device for undertaking that rethinking. As to whether or not it’s adequate to the job, of course it isn’t. Just how DO you (re)think the whole world across every scale of time and space in one framework?

But we’ve got to start somewhere. Think of it as one of the first steps in a thousand-mile journey.


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