Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Tim Morton in a paragraph, and some tomato sauce

Ted Hamilton reviews Tim Morton's Humankind in the Los Angeles Review of Books. Here's Morton's recent career in a paragraph:
Humankind is the latest in a barrage of brief volumes that has transformed Morton from a literary critic with an interest in food and Romantic poetry to a globe-trotting public intellectual elaborating a new ontology for the Anthropocene. Ecology without Nature (2007) and The Ecological Thought (2010) developed the argument that Nature with a capital “N” inhibits true ecological awareness. Hyperobjects (2013) introduced the titular concept of massively extended, empirically elusive objects, such as “global warming,” that demand new ways of thinking about human action and subjectivity. In Dark Ecology, released last year, Morton expanded these claims into a deep-time story of how everything went wrong with the invention of agriculture. In a stylistic analogue of the syncretic spirit of these works, Morton’s writing has become increasingly breezy in its references to object-oriented ontology, Buddhism, and My Bloody Valentine, often in the same sentence. Humankind picks up right where Dark Ecology left off, arguing — among many other things, and through a bewildering array of asides — that our best chance for solidarity with nonhuman beings is fixing the “bug” of anthropocentrism in Marx.
Followed by this:
Don’t be put off by, or expect too much from, the Marx. While Humankind is broadly Marxist in orientation, and while Morton ultimately locates the proper place for Anthropocene politics in an interspecies — nay, interbeing — communism, the book is hardly Marxian in tone or method. Morton spends more time with quantum theory than he does with class-consciousness. This is because, for him, our ecological crisis, signified most clearly by the hyperobject of global warming, begins not with James Watt’s steam engine or the logic of surplus value, but with the separation between humans and nonhumans that occurred with the Neolithic Revolution.
So, what's Morton up to?
Now he’s staging an intervention against our addiction to a whole way of thinking and feeling: the logic of explosive holism born of the Severing, or what he calls “agrilogistics.” Agrilogistics is a bad program that we’ve left running so long that it’s produced the Sixth Mass Extinction Event. It’s what’s behind patriarchy, racism, and dead polar bears. It’s the basis of anthropocentrism and — as Morton argues in complicated but compelling fashion — Kantian correlationism, another enemy. The analogy to code [“agrilogistics”?] isn’t just a cute way of flattening the ontology of humans and computer viruses: just like the anthropocentric “bug” in Marxism, ideas are real, material forces, and if we don’t learn to think correctly, we’ll never come to act correctly. In fact, rigidly distinguishing thought from action is another part of the problem.
And so it goes.
Why read Morton, then? Surely not in search of a roadmap for revolution. Like most theory, whether of the capital-T or lower-case variety (and this is decidedly lower-case), Humankind is meant to prompt political projects, not to guide them. There are some fair contributions in this direction, a bit more concrete than what Morton has offered before: embrace a politics of pleasure, don’t buy into the obsession with scarcity and efficiency (a legacy of agrilogistics), and double down on moments of cross-species kinship like the Cecil the lion controversy. Of course, this still leaves us wondering what kind of solidarity we should be aiming for, and what politics for nonhumans means. Are we going to stand at the barricades with other objects? And will the barricades be part of our rebel army, too?

The best image of Morton is not a rabble-rouser on the streets but a lecturer with a flair for showmanship and arrogance, capable of synthesizing disparate sources into an argument for why we must think differently or perish.
I'll buy that. And that leads to a bit of waggishness:
The upshot of Morton’s capaciousness is that this invitation is open to philosophers, eco-critics, activists, artists, psychologists, and historians, and perhaps even to the tomato sauce that I spilled on my copy of the book, temporarily occluding some of the verbal content while illuminating the previously withdrawn capacity of the pages to absorb liquid. I hadn’t physically related to a book in that way in a long time. It reminded me of the Ziploc bag with which I preserved my copy of The Neverending Story in third grade.
And that as well. 

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