Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Reading Hyperobjects: Pardon Me While I Have a Strange Interlude

I’ve begun reading Morton’s second chapter, “Nonlocality,” and have decided I need to say something about Morton’s use of science, a subject matter that’s already occasioned a fair amount of discussion. Jon Cogburn’s written a useful post, How not to engage with other humanists; Nathan Brown and the continental/continental divide, which generated a great deal of discussion, much of it about Morton’s Realist Magic (which I’ve not read). Some thinkers are appalled by what Morton does and think it discredits his work. Others, while cognizant of difficulties, take a somewhat different view.

In reply to Cogburn, Terrence Blake said: “I do not discuss Morton at all as, like you, I think he is doing something very different than philosophy most of the time...” Others seem to agree; I’m one of them. In my own remark I observed that
I've been strongly influenced by Lévi-Strauss, an important precursor to (while also being contemporary to) much of the thinking in question. He made use of mathematical ideas. In particular, his four-volume study of myth is larded with technical-seeming diagrams, notation, and he talks of proving this or that in a mathematical way. But he also says, in the introduction to The Raw and the Cooked, that this is all by way of metaphor, analogy. He isn't really using algebraic group theory, but finds some notions from it useful.

It seems to me that his use of those ideas is rhetorical and, in a way, necessary as well. The short-hand notions allow you to see relationships that cannot be expressed very well in prose. It's the visual layout and the way you can examine relationships among items as they're laid out on the page – very useful.

I find it relatively easy to draw a conceptual line between the comparisons Lévi-Strauss draws between the myths he analyzes and the rhetoric he uses to comment on those comparisons. The comparisons exist apart from the commentary, and it's the comparisons that I find compelling.

But Morton isn't commenting on a specific body of texts. When you peel away his techno-mathematico-scientific rhetoric, what have you got? I'm not sure.

But the problem is a general one. How does one come to grips with science and math when one doesn't have the technical chops to do so in depth? Think of Morton as a smart guy who's interested in the world and who, by the way, happens to have a Ph.D. in English Lit. That's allowed him to get to a certain place in the world and, now that he's there, he's doing something else, something that some people seem to be interested in, something that needs to be done. What do we make of that?

Well, it's easy enough to say that at least he should get the science and math right. But what does that mean? Without the technical apparatus, you can't really get it right. There's always going to be come compromise, some misdirection, some fuzziness.
I’ll have more to say about Morton a bit later, perhaps tomorrow. For now I leave you with a couple of links. Cogburn’s post was occasioned by a paper by Nathan Brown that attacks both Harman and Morton: The Nadir of OOO: From Graham Harman’s Tool-Being to Timothy Morton’s Realist Magic: Objects, Ontology, Causality (Open Humanities Press, 2013). Brown himself participates in the discussion of Cogburn’s post (comment 44). In that same discussion Dominic Fox provided a link to a page which has collected every usage of “hyperobject” in Hyperobjects and lists them with a bit of context for each (but no page numbers). Finally, the source of the subtitle for this post:

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