Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Reading Hyperobjects 1: The World has Ended

Timothy Morton. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. University of Minnesota Press 2013. 229 pp.

I’m finding the book to be a bit of a tough read, requiring frequent pauses for thought. But more of that at the end.

* * * * *

I’ve finished the introduction, “A Quake in Being,” pp. 1-24.
A hyperobject could be the Lago Agrio oil field in Ecuador, or the Florida Everglades. A hyperobject could be the biosphere, or the Solar System. A hyperobject could be the sum total of all the nuclear materials on Earth; or just plutonium, or the uranium. A hyperobject could be the very long-lasting product of direct human manufacture, such as Styrofoam or plastic bags, or the sum of all the whirring machinery of capitalism. Hyperobjects, then, are “hyper” in relation to some other entity, whether they are directly manufactured by humans or not. (p. 1)
That quells some misgivings I had when Morton was explaining the concept at Stanford’s Arcade. At that time he seemed to dwell on weirdness, but the terms of his definition – hyperobjects are massively distributed in space and times, etc. – didn’t specify weirdness. But there’s nothing weird about the Solar System, or Styrofoam, or even capitalism, though it is perhaps a bit weird to think of all the world’s Styrofoam as one (collective) (hyper-)object.

You know how when you read Borges’ The Library of Babel you had little choice but to imagine books one might find there? There’s the one with a joke about three clergymen and a mosquito on page 79, but the punch line’s missing. The punch line is on page 123 in some other book, but in Klingon. And of course there’s a book containing the draft text of Hyperobjects, except that it reads right-to-left and back-to-front.

And so on.

The concept of hyperobjects is like that. You keep inventing your own examples and then wondering whether or not they qualify. Maybe so, maybe not. Who knows?

* * * * *

But, the end of the world, the one in the book’s subtitle. Did you grow up watching The Jetson’s on TV and dream of jetpacks? Did you see Disney’s Our Friend the Atom, with its prophesy of endless clean energy from atomic power? Did you see Kubrick’s 2001 and wonder when we’d see the Monolith? Or are you a believer in the coming Singularity, when computers will come to out-think us and may or may-not let us use nanotechnology to endow our bodies with never-ending youth?

Well, it’s happened, and it’s called the Anthropocene, Morton’s prime example of hyperobject. Not at all what you expected is it? For the Anthropocene is not some miraculous, or horrific, event ever-lingering just beyond tomorrow. It happened while we weren’t looking. Morton double dates it: to 1784, the birth of the steam engine, and 1945, the explosion of the first atomic bombs.
This is not only a historical age but also a geological one. Or better: we are no longer able to think history as exclusively human, for the very reason that we are in the Anthropocene. (p. 5)
That Anthropocene that’s crept up on us, it ends the world. In a special sense of “world”, just as Francis Fukuyama had a special sense of “history” in mind when he declared it at an end back in 1989. Whether or not Fukuyama was right about history ending in that special sense, it has kept chugging right along in the ordinary sense.

Of course, the world has not ended in the ordinary sense; the earth hasn’t been blasted to smithereens by a wandering asteroid, nor melted in the sun’s dying explosion, nor conquered by super intelligent lizard beings from outer space. But Morton may be right in declaring the world at an end.

In a special sense.
Hyperobjects are a good candidate for what Heidegger calls “the last god,” or what the poet Hölderlin calls “the saving” power that grows alongside the dangerous power. We were perhaps expecting an eschatological solution from the sky, or a revolution in consciousness – or, indeed, a people’s army seizing control of the state. What we got instead came too soon for us to anticipate it. (p. 21)
Whatever your hopes or fears for the next major era in human history, Morton is telling us that it has already happened and it is us, and we better get used to it. Not merely us, of course, for Morton sets microbes, nebulae, siroccos, falafel carts, giant squids, dandelions, NGOs, bonobos, and the world-wide web all on the same ontological footing, neither above nor below us. On this I’m thinking – in process because I’m not sure –¬ that Morton may be correct.

We’re into the next era. Think of it. We’re in the mesh, inextricably:
...for reasons given in this study, hyperobjects end the possibility of transcendental leaps “outside” physical reality. Hyperobjects force us to acknowledge the immanence of thinking to the physical. (p. 2)
And that gives hyperobjects a role in Morton’s thought comparable to the role computers have had in cognitive science. For computers are irreducibly physical things that can do something a bit like thinking and so have put mind and matter on commensurable footing in a way that wasn’t possible for Descartes.

In Morton’s words, gone “is the possibility of a metalanguage that could account for things while remaining uncontaminated by them” (p. 2). We are of a kind with the phenomena we seek to understand, making our seeking a species of coevolution with them. And now they, in the person of the Anthropocene, are telling us it’s time to change our game.

* * * * *

Back to where we began, with the book’s difficulty. Or rather, my difficulty with the book, for I am no fair judge of the book itself.

Morton is writing and thinking within an ethos to which I apprenticed: Continental philosophical thought. The project that would, in the ordinary course of things, have internalized that ethos in me – a thesis applying Merleau-Ponty, Lévi-Strauss, Neitzsche, and Piaget (but also the early Wittgenstein) to “Kubla Khan” – got away from me. I found myself thrown ashore on a strange land, where I’ve been ever since, exploring cognitive science, cultural evolution, neuroscience and, yes, literature, film, music, and graffiti.

Consequently I don’t know how to read the book, not as it was written. Nor can I guess how Hyperobjects reads to someone who has naturalized the idioms of Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Harman, and many others, whose last names may not necessarily begin with “H”. Is it easy, difficult, opaque, translucent, luminous, ludic, preposterous, or prescient? How am I to judge? I hear that some think it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread while others think it is at best half-baked. But I don’t feel qualified to make such judgments.

What, then, can I do? I can see where it takes me, not by just reading it, but by exercising my negative capability and blogging my way through it.


  1. Bill,
    Sorry, and NOT to troll here - but this is an honest thought. It seems a real definition is never actually provided for "hyperobjects." There is a fallacy going on from the very start much akin to the one found in the Euthyphro. Socrates questions piety (as Euthyphro has said that taking his father to court was the pious thing to do), and yet when pressed to provide a definition for piety Euthyphro can only say it is what he is doing. It seems that without criteria for what a hyperobject could *not* be (or, conversely, if it can be *anything*), then the term is hopelessly vague. I can't answer to what a hyperobject is by pointing to arbitrary things. I've found the same to be true of the term "object" in object-oriented ontology. True, Morton does appeal to *relations* in order to define hyperobjects - that is, how they "hyper" relate or act - but still, the criteria for distinguishing hyperactivity is not to be found. Agential activity, relation, and process all answer these questions - but that is not OOO, that is process-relational philosophy.

    Just thoughts here riffing off of what you wrote. And as an aside I do truly love your photograph.

    Longtime lurker on your blog.

    1. Oh,I agree. I gave up on getting a tight definition long ago. Still, I think there's something interesting going on in Morton's work even if it isn't philosophy proper. I'm willing to spend some time tracking it down.